SNARK WEEK: 8 Things Costume Movies Screw Up, 18th-Century Edition


Costume movies tend to screw up certain things on repeat. For the 18th century, it used to be that shiny, white wigs were the most egregious, followed by bust darts and/or princess seams. Luckily, most costume designers have moved on from these incorrect tropes, but they have been replaced with new trends of wrongness that make for very bad 18th century movie costumes. So now, we count down the top 8 Things Costume Movies Screw Up, 18th-Century Edition:


8. Back-Laced Dresses

This one is pretty well on the wane. You see it a lot in pre-1990s costume movies, but it still shows up on extras or in super cheap productions, and it bugs me, so I’m including it.

Pretty much all women’s clothing in the 18th century closed in front, with the exception of French-style court gowns and little girl’s dresses. Otherwise, front closure. If it’s a stomacher look, then it would close at the side fronts. If there’s no stomacher, it would close center front.

And, I get it! My first attempt at an 18th-century dress, made back in college, had a back-lacing closure. Because we’re so used to clothes closing in back. But you know, that’s really a 19th century and onwards thing! Before that, you frequently see front closures. And in the 18th century, almost ALWAYS front closures (only exceptions, again — court gowns and little girls’ dresses).

1984 Amadeus

Amadeus (1985). Technically, we can’t SEE the back-lacing here, but take one look at that bodice front (with princess seams!) and tell me it doesn’t lace up in back. © Saul Zaentz

Farewell My Queen (2012)

Farewell My Queen (2012). Also, that is SO not an 18th century approach to stripe placement.

2006 Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette (2006) is one of my favorite movies. I love it. It has gorgeous costumes. But there are back-lacing dresses lurking in there.

2006 Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette. Lots of back-lacing dresses lurking like stingrays in the masquerade scene.

2006 Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette. One of MA’s mourning dresses is laced up the back.

2006 Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette. Even my blessed Polignac, my 18th century style icon, has a back-lacing dress in her first scene. Sob.


7. Modern Makeup on Women

Offensive in any era, but, look: the 18th-century makeup aesthetic was: pale face, darkened eyebrows, rouged cheeks, rouged lips. THERE WAS NO EYE MAKEUP.

Amadeus (1985)

Amadeus. Painfully wrong.

Plunkett and Macleane (1999). Blue Eyeshadow FTW?

1982 The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982). Not only contouring eyeshadow, but bonus false eyelashes!



They’re offensive in any pre-1870s set movie, but they DEFINITELY offend me and make for bad 18th century movie costumes.

Abduction Club (2002)

Abduction Club (2002). No.

Wuthering Heights (1992). No!

Wuthering Heights (1992). No!

1996 Ridicule

Ridicule (1996). NO, I SAY! BAD ACTRESS! SIT!


5. Wide Straw Hats Tied Down With Ribbons

Okay, I’m not saying it was NEVER done, but hardly ever do you see a wide straw hat pressed down on the sides with ribbons. Yes, hats were sometimes tied on with ribbons, but they generally came from underneath. Also, this curved down on the sides hat shape IS correct… it’s just not done with ribbons.

Thomas Gainsborough | Pirates of the Caribbean (2003)

Thomas Gainsborough | Pirates of the Caribbean (2003)

Thomas Gainsborough | Aristocrats (1999)

Thomas Gainsborough | Aristocrats (1999)


4. Face-Eating Wigs

It’s an easy, theatrical way to avoid “obvious wigline” around the face — put some small tendril curls that fall forward onto the face and hide the hairline. The problem is, THEY DIDN’T DO IT IN THE 18TH CENTURY.

Men would have rocked the obvious wigline or worked their own hair into the front of their wig. Women would have added hairpieces to their own hair or worked their own hair into the front of their wig. And almost every women’s hairstyle was pulled back from the face, except in the 1790s when things got messy.

Not only is it the wrong look for the era, it means that suddenly the actress’s face gets eaten by all that hair!

Amadeus (1985)

Amadeus. Repeat offender, see the image under “Modern Makeup” for another example.

Casanova (2005)

Casanova (2005). The shiny platinum blonde isn’t helping anything, especially with those eyebrows.

Let Them Eat Cake (1999)

Let Them Eat Cake (1999). Does she have a forehead? I have no idea, because her wig ate it.


3. Women’s Hair Worn Down

Again, offensive in any era, unless it’s worn by a 12 year old, but, come ON. If an 18th-century woman was going to roll out of bed, she would at the least put her hair up in a bun.

2000 The Patriot

The Patriot (2000). I don’t care if the British ARE coming, put your frickin’ hair up.

1999 Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow (1999). I guess Katrina is pre-pubescent, which makes this movie even creepier.

Goya's Ghosts (2006)

Goya’s Ghosts (2006). PUT YOUR FRICKIN’ HAIR UP.


2. Red Hair

Okay, kids. I’m a redhead. I love red hair. I think it’s beautiful, and I think it’s my best look. And, when I do 18th-century costume, I frequently leave my hair red. But I’m not going to tell you that it’s period, because, IT’S NOT.

Here are some real historical redheads. What one thing do you see that connects them all?

Emilia Charlotte Lennox by John Hoppner, Sotheby's.

“Emily is a fine, tall, large woman with a Lennox complexion, but red or auburn hair…” Lady Emily Charlotte Lennox by John Hoppner, Sotheby’s.


Queen Marie-Antoinette of France had strawberry blonde hair, for which she was teased by Madame du Barry. Portrait of Marie-Antoinette by Jean-Baptiste Charpentier the Elder after Joseph Ducreux, 1770, Palace of Versailles.

Portrait of Marie Thérèse Raphaëlle of Spain, Dauphine of France by Daniel Klein the younger, c. 1745, Palace of Versailles.

Infanta Maria Teresa Rafaela of Spain, later dauphine of France, had red hair. Portrait of Marie Thérèse Raphaëlle of Spain, Dauphine of France by Daniel Klein the younger, c. 1745, Palace of Versailles.


Now, let us compare that with some on-screen redheads:

2006 Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette. I love Rose Byrne in this part, and I think her red hair is gorgeous, and she’s completely my 18th-century style icon. But it’s not historically accurate.

Aristocrats (1999)


Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006). Red hair AND hair down, it’s a double whammy!

2006 Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette. The only time I’ve seen it done right — red powder (which WAS briefly faddish) over blond or white hair. Compare it with Mary Lewin.


1. Men’s Layered Haircuts

Yes, men’s hairstyles frequently featured a shorter section in front. Initially, this shorter section went from the hairline back to the ears. Later, it extended to the crown of the head. However, there was ALWAYS long hair in back, from at least the crown of the head. 18th-century men’s hairstyles were NOT a modern, short, layered cut with a long pigtail randomly hanging. Nor was it a mullet.

1975 Barry Lyndon

Barry Lyndon (1975). That ribbon-wrapped pigtail is great, it’s just that the long hair should come from the top of the head.

Farinelli 1994

Farinelli (1994). BAD MULLET. NO BISCUIT. Also, chin-eating is not sexy.

Colin Firth in Valmont (1989)

Valmont (1989). WHY, COLIN, WHY??!!


Which of these bad 18th century movie costumes showing trends of wrongness irritate you the most? Did we miss any that make you want to stick a fork in your eye? Let us know in the comments!

40 Responses

  1. Tamara

    One addendum: In the book Perfume, the girl was supposed to have red hair. The Hair/Makeup crew obviously took it a couple steps further and made it unnaturally red and left it down, but she did have red hair.

  2. Stephani

    My eyes!!!!! Noooooo!
    Ugh, of all of these, I’ve always been most offended by Valmont. Everything about it is awful, but especially the costuming choices.
    Regardless of the silly hair-down-ness of Sleepy Hollow, I love that movie. I don’t expect historical accuracy from Tim Burton, I expect fantasy and creepiness and characters whose costumes tell a story about them.

  3. Bess Chilver (myladyswardrobe)

    The biggest wrongness I have is seeing ladies in 18th century dress with NO STAYS underneath.

    One of the worst culprits, sadly, is Richard E Grant’s “Scarlet Pimpernel” series. Its a lovely version of the stories, BUT….Marguerite (played by Downton Abbey’s Countess Grantham/Elizabeth McGovern) is frequently seen sans corset. Makes me weep. At least the 1980s one with Jane Seymour as Marguerite and Anthony Andrews did have proper stays underneath (or at least the bodices of the gown looked properly fitted and supported. (I can forgive that series for not 18th century makeup as its trying to do the natural look).

    And worse than back lacing…obvious back zips. Yes, I’ve seen them in Richard E Grant’s SP series.

    • Al

      oh, and can we discuss how all of Marguerite’s friggin’ costumes are from the wrong decade? The novels make a huge deal about how stylish and fashion-forward she is, wearing the new streamlined, high-waisted gowns before they became the norm.

        • Ginger

          I highly recommend at least skimming the first chapter, when Marguerite makes her appearance at an inn. There’s a lovely description of her clothing, including her fancy tall walking-stick. It’s been a LONG time and I knew little about 18th century at the time, but it was vivid enough for me to picture her very clearly. :)

    • NuitsdeYoung

      Elizabeth McGovern had recently had a baby at the time the series was filmed. That may have something to do with it.

  4. clara

    COLIN NO. *Sprays that hair with water.* *also cuts it**Also burns all the costumes from that movie and changes them for his Mr Darcy-just-out-of-the-water-combo*
    There, better.

    Also, Jesus Christ the princess seams. I did not realise how “bizarre” (yeah for lack of a better word) the costumes from Amadeus are. Guess I did not know half as much about historical costume when I watched it as I do now

  5. Katy

    The wearing the hair down thing drives me CRAZY, to a point where it probably bugs me a little too much to be normal. BUT IT’S JUST LIKE UGH, PUT YOUR DAMN HAIR UP.

    Also, I too am a redhead and I LOVE red hair and whenever I do 18th century hairstyles I never powder because I want my hair to shine in all it’s enormous coppery glory. It’s the one thing I don’t care about not being period. BECAUSE RED HAIR IS THE BEST.

  6. Joanne Renaud

    I can live with the red hair thing because it looks awesome. And I can forgive the eye makeup because it’s a movie and they have to accentuate the eyes somehow… unfortunately a lot of movie make-up is too conspicuously modern.

    Back-laced dresses…. well, they DID back-lace a lot in the 17th century. So maybe… uh…. they’re older dresses… they… updated? (LOL)

    The wig thing probably bugs me the most. Women, as you said, wore hairpieces with their own hair; they did not wear enormous heavy fake-looking wigs hanging over their own foreheads. (Realistically, I know for a movie wigs are probably easier; but I prefer in movies like The Duchess where they make a token effort to try to disguise the wig-ness.)

    But probably the most risible lady-wig scene I can remember from a movie is the wig and hairpin scene from REVOLUTION. DO YOU REMEMBER THAT? I do. (I wish I didn’t.)

      • Joanne Renaud

        OH MY GOD. You’ve never seen REVOLUTION?! It’s from 1985, and it was one of the weirdest misfires to come out of the ’80s. Here’s the trailer.

        So it stars Al Pacino has an incredibly miscast revolutionary, and Natassja Kinski as his rich girlfriend. There’s this scene where Natassja’s evil Tory sisters force her to dress up in fancy clothes and a large fake-looking grey wig (it’s just put on her head) and flirt with some redcoat officers at a soiree that night. Anyway, the guy who’s hitting on her is kind of a sleaze, and she grabs a hairpin out of her crappy wig and STABS HIM IN THE CROTCH WITH IT. Then she runs up to her bedroom and throws the wig off. She literally just grabs it and throws it off her head. It’s just… beyond words.

  7. Sarah

    Thank God there are people who are interested in the way things actually were; I’m consistently baffled at most historical drama for even using history as a conceit. It’s like watching the result of of someone having blown their load halfway through the second sentence of a Wikipedia page.

    On the hair-up-hair-down thing: before the eighteenth century it was conventional (though still rare enough) for unmarried women to wear their hair down – viz. ‘her hair was loose down her back, as befitted a maiden’. This was worked extensively into the Elizabethan Virgin Queen iconography. I realise I’ve staggered far away from the eighteenth century, but thought it might be worth a mention. It certainly doesn’t excuse the tumble-down fright wigs cited above.

    Apologies for the spew. I talk too much when I discover very awesome websites early in the morning.

  8. rikibeth

    Another gorgeous but inaccurate redhead: Romola Garai in “Amazing Grace”. Overall the costuming is very good (we will ignore the toddler boy in little trousers instead of a frock, one of my pet peeves, but it’s a brief scene) but Romola Garai has very red hair, and I can’t remember whether it might be excused by the powder tax – the movie jumps around a bit on Its own timeline.

    Still. Ioan Gruffudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Gambon, Toby Jones – highly recommended.

    • Kendra

      I give that one a pass, since it’s VERY late in the 18th century and right when the younger generation was transitioning to the no-powder look. Although I wonder if the real historical person had red hair?

      • Bronwyn

        Catching up on everything, and…

        No, the real person didn’t have red hair. Romola Garai says something about it in one of the special features, that she just wanted to have red hair again. I want to say Barbara was blonde.

        I too have red hair, though, so I kinda love when women in film do too… :)

  9. Mishelinka Gora

    Hair worn down would be my biggest peeve from your list. But I would add the lack of head coverings, whether they be hats, veils, or headdresses. There is a reason that we have the term dishevelled, after all, and it’s because going out with your hair/head uncovered was not the done thing.

  10. Grace Burson

    OMG yes! The dangling hair everywhere! Not only is hair deeply symbolic from the middle ages (if your hair was uncovered, you were a virgin, or at least claiming to be one. If you were married or otherwise obviously sexually active, you wore a coif. I don’t care if modern actresses hate it, COVER YOUR DAMN HAIR) all the way to the early 20th century (putting up one’s hair was a major milestone for a young lady) – but wearing your hair down was an invitation to get it filthy and/or set yourself on fire!!

    I’m currently watching the 2008 Tess of the D’Urbervilles with Gemma Arterton and her hair is down in EVERY SINGLE DAMN SCENE. It is driving me absolutely bugfuck. I have milked cows. YOU CANNOT MILK COWS WITH YOUR WAIST LENGTH HAIR DOWN.

  11. Christine Moeller

    I love FrockFlicks, but there’s one falsehood that you often repeat – that people didn’t have bangs pre-1870’s. It’s simply not true. People did have bangs pre-1870’s, and while it was not THE thing, it certainly was A thing. You would be far more correct if you wrote that bangs weren’t a thing before the early 17th century/late 16th century. There are many more paintings of people with bangs out there (especially paintings of children – boys and girls), however, I’ve tried to include a variety of pre-1870’s examples below.

  12. Joseph

    Surely the biggest offender would be women not wearing modesty shawls around their cleavage outside? I wonder if we have any proof of this

  13. saffireblu

    I know this is a super old post, & I apologise (I’m not exactly getting to these posts in order) but I was wondering if you were thinking of doing similar posts to this for other periods.
    My particular interest is the Ancient World & 17th c, but I imagine a post for the 16th & 19th Centuries would have you guys watching some very eye-twitchy productions!

    I don’t understand why some films/ series think ‘modernising’ costumes to make it ‘relatable’ is anything that audiences want; you want modern-looking costumes- do/ watch something contemporary- if it’s to do with a ‘vision’ (a la’ ‘Richard III’ et al.), that’s fine- though I’d prefer to honestly know that off the bat, otherwise, it ends up screaming DNGAF; & don’t BS after the fact, either.

    I was also wondering if you were going to review ‘To Kill a King’- it does have a few of your MCM/ WCW stars; Tim Roth, Rupert Everett- I don’t know if you have Dougray Scott & Olivia Williams, or not – I can’t seem to find it for love nor money, but people have said it’s good.

  14. RuRu

    Goya’s ghosts hair is not a mistake. Check out the portraits that Goya did to the Duchess of Alba!

  15. Ioveta

    Totally understand that red hair was generally covered up in the 18th century, but if anyone wants to see a few ladies who didn’t cover up their fiery hair, Francis Alleyne’s portrait of Anne St. John Trefusis (1763) shows her in a dreamy blue gown and excellent, and very red, hairstyle. I think I have seen another portrait of a similar looking red headed woman in a white gown as well. Portrait of a Young Woman by Philip Reinagle also shows a girl with pretty red curls.
    Not in a ‘gotcha, provenance!’ kind of way, but since I’ve seen a few comments by 18th century enthusiast redheads I think Anne and the sitter could use a little admiration for wearing their red hair in their portraits even when it wasn’t fashion. :)


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